On January 14, 2013, the Philadelphia Muslim community was shaken to its core when police sounded an Amber alert for a missing five year old girl. A non-Muslim woman donned niqab and pretended to be the girl’s mother in order to take her out of school. During her captivity, the child was sexually assaulted and later abandoned in a dark playground, wearing only an oversized tee-shirt in near freezing temperatures. While this was a stranger abduction, most cases of abuse are by family members or acquaintances. Our children are not immune to the ills of society. Muslims have to wake up and recognise that our children are vulnerable to outsiders, community members, and even members of our own families. According to the Together Against Grooming (TAG) website, hundreds of Muslim leaders across the UK read a sermon addressing sexual exploitation on June 28, 2013. Some, however, criticised the campaign as reactionary or apologetic. We as a community need to be proactive in order to protect children and the vulnerable from sexual exploitation and abuse.
Nabila Sharma’s Brutal: The Heartbreaking True Story of a Little Girl’s Stolen Innocence exposes the sad reality of sexual abuse and child abuse in our midst. Every one of us is outraged when we hear cases of child abuse. Yet, as a community, we have done little to address this widespread problem. The Khutba Against Grooming organised by TAG was an unprecedented campaign that addressed the issue of sexual exploitation. In the United States, I have not seen a talk organised by a Muslim organisation that addresses child abuse: how to recognise it, prevent it, or recover from it. We make victims more vulnerable by offering few faith-based social services that would help them. Rather, we live in a world of naïve ideals, assuming that either these things don’t happen to us or expecting other social agencies will solve our problems. So, in effect, we can become complicit.
Perhaps it is the idea of seventy excuses for one’s brother or sister, the fear of backbiting, or inability to produce enough witnesses that leads to covering up crimes against children. Lama Al-Ghamdi died in October 2012 after suffering a crushed skull, broken ribs and arm. Her father Fayhan al-Ghamdi, a celebrity imam, admitted beating her. Reports that the father would be released after paying $50,000 blood money shocked the international community. A social worker at the hospital where Lama was admitted claimed the little girl was raped. When Muslims read news stories like this about a girl who died from her father’s brutal hand we often cringe knowing that Western media picked up this story because of its sensationalism. However, physical abuse is not uncommon in Muslim families. Muslims in the West are often embarrassed by news reports about honour killings. We often cry out explaining that honour killings have no basis in Islam. Yet, what is our response to serious cases of physical abuse?
Our schools and organisations that work with the youth are poorly equipped to deal with cases of domestic abuse. Mahreen*, a South Asian school teacher, explained “There was a lack of urgency in the response and a lack of seriousness of physical abuse. We are often discouraged from reporting on our own people.” Mahreen told a disturbing account:
A clear case of an incident that needed to be reported involved a student with a black eye and a dislocated shoulder. When it was just us Muslims behind doors, it was just like it was no big deal, she had ‘just got whacked’. I talked to the superintendent about the incident and she told me not to tell anyone. However, I talked to school nurse, who was a non-Muslim and a mandated reporter. To keep my job, I had to go to an outside agency because if I reported it, my job might have been in jeopardy. However, as a certified teacher, I could lose my license to teach without reporting it.
Mahreen pointed out that there need to be training and policies put in place to protect children. Rather than sweeping things under the rug to protect prominent families, we have to become more ethical in how we deal with these cases.
When I first became Muslim, someone explained to me that sexual harassment and molestation rarely occur because of the separation of the sexes. Muslim women are told if they dress appropriately they will not draw unwanted attention, but in many Muslim-majority cities modestly dressed women are harassed and even physically assaulted on the streets. And behind closed doors all over the world, Muslim women, girls, and boys are subject to sexual assaults at the hands of family members, close family friends, teachers, and religious leaders. Girls are told that they are a fitnah. However, sexual abuse is about power and not about physical attraction.
Rape victims are often punished, either by carrying the stigma or shame or by the very legal system that is supposed to protect them. In the Maldives, a 15 year old girl who was repeatedly raped by her stepfather has been sentenced to 100 lashes for premarital sex. Often, victims of sexual abuse are yoked with notions of honor and shame. Khadijah*, who was raised by a Sudanese mother and American father explained, “The shame of sexual abuse cuts across a lot of Islamic cultures.” Khadijah told her own harrowing story:
I was very small – three years old. My abuser was a teenage girl who babysat me. I felt shamed from the beginning. I just remember using the bathroom and bleeding on the toilet. I remember the look on my mother’s face and she looked so angry. I was too young to know it wasn’t directed at me.
Ultimately, there was a trial and the offender was sentenced. Khadijah explained how the effort to repress the memory led to even greater shame. Over time, the memories came back, despite her parents’ attempts to keep it silent in order for her to forget. She was even punished for telling her sister. Khadijah recounted, “No one told me that this happened to me and I did nothing wrong.” For victims of sexual abuse, the shame can lead to low self-esteem and self-destructive behavior.
It is important that people know that sexual abuse can happen to anyone. Hafsah,* a Palestinian American living in the Michigan area with a sprawling family residing on three continents explained, “No family and no community is invulnerable to human tendencies, such as violence or sexual perversion.” Hafsah pointed out that the main problem is our silence as a community. “If the person who has this tendency knows that there is no silence, then this can’t continue. Speaking out will deny them that power.” Hafsah told her own experience as a survivor and the stories that she pieced together from her aunt and cousins. “In my culture, we are ready to cast out the woman who had a child out of wedlock, but we let the molester carry on because it would be so shameful.”
Both Khadijah and Hafsah offer hope for victims to rise from the horrors of abuse. Both pointed out that victims speaking out can empower others to break free from the yoke of shame. Hafsah said, “We are in control of our narrative and we can make a choice in how something is significant. I am still angry and this is a way to fight back and not letting them win.” As a community, we have to fight the urge to sweep things under the rug and give voices to the voiceless. By not hiding, we can help those who have been damaged by those they have trusted, whether the abuse was sexual, physical, or psychological. Zerqa Abid, who works on Project Sakinah, has addressed a lot of issues surrounding domestic abuse. We must support the work of shelters and organisations such as Abid’s because it is our duty as Muslims to protect the weak and vulnerable.
*Names and some details have been changed to protect identities
Margari Aziza Hill is a writer, editor, and adjunct professor who lives just outside of Philadelphia